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‘Seasons come and seasons go’

The ELCA’s Suomi Conference decides to end its official status, but continue its mission

Jane Lepisto chaired the annual meeting of the Suomi Conference of the ELCA on June 23, 2013, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Hancock, Michigan. Conference president, Pastor Joel Rova-Hegener, was on sabbatical. Photo provided by Jane Lepisto

Alas, the Finns are shutting down. Their longstanding official language and cultural presence in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) will end formally on December 31, 2013, with the dissolution of the Suomi Conference, a nongeographical grouping within the ELCA. But still their work goes on.

The Suomi Conference story goes to the heart of mission: Jesus said “all nations.” Finns stepped up.

It’s 2,000 miles from Jerusalem to St. Petersburg, Russia; 4,000 miles from Jerusalem to Windhoek, capital of Namibia in southwest Africa; and 6,000 miles from the holy city to Hancock, Michigan.

Finns link those farflung missions. The Suomi Conference formed “to provide soul care for people who needed ministry in their native language,” says Jane Lepisto.

Lepisto is the widow of Antti Lepisto, who revitalized the Suomi Conference for mission. (She lost him in 2012.) Antti told her what others also knew: It was time to let the Suomi Conference come to an end.

Survivors

A few older European language-affinity groups survive formally or informally within Lutheran denominations. Meanwhile, the number of global language groups likely is growing within those church organizations as more immigrants arrive in the United States.

Why are the Finns calling it quits? “The case, as with other ethnic affinity groups, is simply that not enough people are using the language,” suggests Paul Daniels, archivist and curator at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

Breakup or no, Finnish-American Lutherans plan to persist in a vibrant mission. Even with few Finnish speakers in the pews, a key reason for not quitting earlier was a pair of international partnerships.

The Suomi Conference has sent financial aid and trainers to the 400-year-old Ingrian Lutheran Church in Russia. The Ingrian region congregations cluster near St. Petersburg, only 180 miles from the Finnish capital Helsinki. Christians went there secretly under communism, but rose up after the Soviet Union’s fall. Now the 80-congregation Ingrian group is expanding into south-central Russia and Siberia. Suomi will continue to accept donations until December 31 and will send funds to Ingrian Lutherans via the ELCA’s Northeastern Minnesota Synod.

Suomi is also active in Namibia in southwest Africa. Finnish missionaries began working there in the late 19th century. Visitors are still surprised to meet Namibians with Finnish first names.

How to keep the Finns?

When Finns began immigrating to the United States in the 1860s to work mines and farms, they were already divided in terms of church preference. The Suomi Synod, organized in 1890, tried to be inclusive.

The Suomi Synod, organized in 1890, tried to be inclusive.

It persisted, as did Finnish culture and language. Not until 1958 did the English-language version of the Suomi Synod’s newsletter surpass the circulation of the original Finnish version.

Pastor Raymond Wargelin, president of Suomi Synod in 1962, hoped for Finnish support of the proposed merger creating the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). But he knew Finns feared losing their identity in the merged group. So he proposed a Suomi Conference within the LCA. Finnish opposition to the merger diminished. The Suomi Synod went out of business, replaced by the Suomi Conference in 1963, with Wargelin staying on as president.

Wargelin’s daughter, Marianne Wargelin, says her father’s purpose was to “create a transitional group that would make sure the spiritual needs of these Finnish-speaking people could be served inside of this new thing called the LCA” — which subsequently merged into the ELCA in 1988.

Wargelin says her father expected the Suomi Conference to disband in about 15 years as Finnish speakers ebbed in number. Nevertheless it endured. People liked staying in touch for old times’ sake, if nothing else.

In 1993, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Pastor Antti Lepisto became president of the Suomi Conference — and led a here-and-now mission to help revive the Ingrian Lutheran Church in the northwest part of the dismantled Soviet Union near Finland.

Marianne Wargelin’s father was the Rev. Raymond Wargelin, a founding force of the Suomi Conference of the ELCA. Wargelin is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

“There was nothing wrong with the Suomi Conference ending. It wasn’t supposed to last forever.”

American Finns donated money and traveled to the Ingria area to provide training in leadership and stewardship. “They weren’t just being nostalgic,” says Marianne Wargelin, “they were living in the present.”

Time to stop

Jane Lepisto, widow of Antti, adds this in a followup email: “Antti and other Conference leaders knew that the life of the Conference was nearing an end. He planned to suggest its closing this year.”

Others agreed it was time. “It was meant to end,” says Wargelin in an interview. “There was nothing wrong with it ending. It wasn’t supposed to last forever.”

At the worship service June 23 at Gloria Dei Lutheran in Hancock, Michigan, Marianne Wargelin was disappointed that it included virtually no Finnish, neither hymns nor liturgy. Her father, she wrote in a followup e-mail, “would have been saddened to know that his effort to bring Finnish hymnody into American Lutheranism had such poor results.

“The last worship service of the Suomi Conference should have been a place to celebrate Finnish hymnody and the Finnish spiritual tradition that the immigrants had brought” to this country.

That, however, adds Marianne Wargelin, is “my only regret about the ending of the Suomi Conference.”

So another building stone of God’s big Church passes into history. Yet the big Church goes on.

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